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Will 4G revolutionise wireless broadband for J'cans? Digicel says yes

Published:Sunday | August 15, 2010 | 12:00 AM
The RKA building in New Kingston, corporate headquarters of Digicel Group and Digicel Jamaica. - File

Mark Titus, Business Reporter

Having cemented its position as the leader in the local mobile market, Digicel has now set its sights on revolutionising the personal Internet market with its residential '4G' WiMax broadband service, whose launch will be announced on Friday.

The Irish-owned firm already covers a majority of the island with its cellular and Internet service and has been offering the 3.5 GHz WiMax spectrum to corporate customers for the last four years.

The launch of 4G will take the technology to a new level in Jamaica, with Alex Boothroyd, Digicel Group chief executive officer for WiMax, touting the service as better than anything the company's rivals currently offer.

"The way it is defined, it is the fourth generation of wireless technology and it is a standard that is being defined and ratified by the ITU and the WiMax forum," said Boothroyd in a Sunday Business interview on Thursday.

"They call it fourth generation because it is wireless data services and it provides speeds through the radio waves significantly greater than what is available through 3G technology."

Digicel says at the launch it will cover 60 per cent of the population, or 100 per cent of the urbanised areas with 4G broadband.

Netbook strategy

"What that means is that 410,000 households will be able to have Internet access, whereas today, you are only able to get Internet access - if you happen to be in a cable area - provided by LIME or Flow," said Boothroyd.

He was not saying that Digicel would cover 410,000 households upon deployment, only that the company's analysis suggests that this is the potential size of the wireless broadband market from which it can tap business.

According to Boothroyd's assessment of current market penetration, there are 263,000 householdwithpersonalcomputers,of which just 110,000 have Internet access through either LIME or Flow.

Digicel is not only targeting the other 153,000 households which have computers but no Internet service, but will be going after business in households with no computers.

This is where its netbook strategy comes in. At least, that was the original plan - cheap netbooks - the hardware - on which 4G can be deployed.

But Boothroyd on Thursday showed signs of uncertainty when quizzed about the availability of the computers, which the company last year said would be available with the launch of its residential broadband service.

He eventually said the devices "should" be available for the roll-out date, not that they would be. He also hinted at other possible options, but gave no real hint of what those were, only that it involved negotiations with the makers of personal computers.

Digicel's offer will include a wireless router for 'fixed' broadband service, as well as a USB modem, or dongle, for people on the go.

The dongle will be available at dealer stores. It requires no special drivers for installation and has a set-up time of around three minutes.

The wireless router is relatively large, with the antenna in the front of the panel, and consists of four LAN ports, two VOIP ports for basic wired connectivity, and an internal wi-fi transmitter.

The four LAN ports allow up to four computers to connect simultaneously, while the wi-fi transmitter is for those situations where wireless connectivity is desired.

While throwing cold water on the possible threat its main rivals - Claro, LIME and Flow - could pose to its plans to dominate the Internet market, Boothroyd gave a more careful response to the likely impact of new-kid-on-the-block, Dekal Wireless Jamaica, and its, 'super wi-fi' offering.

Dekal claims an ability to service areas where broadband data is not available and has been steadily expanding throughout the country areas where Digicel would be looking down the road for business.

"Dekal Wireless is slightly different," he said. "It is a different technology and proposition."

The WiMax CEO was unwilling to discuss the cost which Jamaicans will pay for the 4G services, or the various packages that are available, neither would he say which of the 32 markets would benefit from the new technology.

In Grand Cayman, where the technology was first tested years ago, Digicel, managed to gain a 25 per cent market share of the fixed broadband market within 180 days.

To encourage customer loyalty in that country, Digicel offered bundled packages of broadband and GSM at a discount of 20-30 per cent compared to the services being purchased separately.

The company launched its pre-paid broadband service in December 2008, which allows unlimited access, for a day up to 90 days.

Following a successful WiMax deployment in Grand Cayman, Digicel entered into a partnership with Alvarion to provide WiMax services throughout the Caribbean region in April 2008.

The company also secured a licence at a cost of US$2 million to offer 2.5 GHz WiMax Internet services in Honduras, and already has a WiMax licence for Trinidad and Tobago.

mark.titus@gleanerjm.com